South Asia

Malnutrition crisis looms for remote Himalayan villages

Terraces in Western Nepal
Image caption Although there is wheat and millet growing in these fields, the crop is poor

The remote mountains of Nepal are suffering from a severe food crisis, but a lack of funding means aid agencies cannot continue to carry out relief operations. The BBC's Joanna Jolly reports on the malnutrition crisis looming for these isolated communities in western Nepal.

The only quick way to reach the remote mountains of western Nepal is by helicopter.

Otherwise it's a 10-day walk up steep hillsides from the nearest road to reach the isolated village of Joripani.

Here, looking out over the snow-capped mountains that mark the border with Tibet, villagers farm on neat terraces.

But, although there is wheat and millet growing in these fields, the crop is poor. Ancient farming methods, unpredictable rainfall and a recent baby boom mean food is scarce.

Prakash Shahi, nine, lives in a simple mud-walled home in Joripani. His father, Suresh, showed me his store of food - a solitary bag of rice donated by an aid agency.

"Our children suffer from malnutrition and some of them are handicapped and disabled because they are not getting enough food," he says.

"Children are not healthy in this area. They can't survive without food."

But Prakash and his family, and the other inhabitants of this village, live a 10-day walk from the nearest road.

'Barren land'

From far away, these craggy mountains dotted with white-washed houses look idyllic - the perfect vision of a Himalayan Shangri-La.

But up close, this village is dirty, fly-infested and poor.

The rate of chronic malnutrition is 70%. You can see it in the children who are fair-haired and listless because of vitamin deficiencies. The average life expectancy here is only 47.

For the past decade, international agencies like the UN World Food Programme (WFP) have been flying food into this region to prevent starvation. But the WFP has said that within the next two months it will drastically scale down aid to Nepal.

Image caption Food aid is distributed in the region on donkeys

The number of people they're feeding in the west of Nepal will decrease from one million to 100,000 by the end of the year - largely due to a decline in donations.

When food arrives on helicopters the whole village helps unload it and then the rice is packed up onto donkeys to be distributed around the district.

Prem Bahadur Malla, a farmer in Joripani, says the village would not survive without the food aid.

"If there's no rainfall, the land will be barren," he says.

"If there is rainfall, we can grow a little bit, but it's hard. Even if we work all year round, we can only grow enough to feed us for three months."

A short walk from Joripani, along a narrow mountain path, is the village of Jamaldara. When food arrives here, locals celebrate with a drumming and dancing performance. They describe their plight to aid workers under the shadow of a large red communist flag.

This is the area of Nepal where the Maoist insurgency began - fuelled by anger against rich, high-caste landowners.

But more than four years after the end of the conflict, little has changed for these villagers.

Kela Nepali, from the Dalit (formerly untouchable) caste, says she feels they have been forgotten.

"We don't have anything to eat so that's why the men go to India to work," she says.

"If the government saw or noticed us, perhaps we'd have development. I had to work in India myself for six to seven years to get money and food and to look after my children."

WFP officer Christina Hobbs says this kind of migration is typical.

The organisation has been trying to increase work opportunities, to give people the chance to stay and improve the area.

"We provide families that are in need with about three months worth of household food supplies in exchange for an equivalent period of work," she says.

"It might be constructing an irrigation canal, working on improved farming techniques or cash crop farming."

Government 'neglect'

Image caption Work opportunities are crucial to encourage people to stay and improve the area

The World Food Programme will now have to drastically scale back these schemes. Christina Hobbs says future relief efforts should be government-led, with the support of the organisation.

"There's a broad acknowledgement from WFP and donors that what needs to happen here now is longer term development, and this needs to be in line with a government policy."

But government intervention seems unlikely. There have been no elected officials here for over a decade. In Joripani, the government buildings have been taken over by a herd of donkeys.

Local teacher Ang Bahadur Shahi says it is a long time since the government provided his school with materials and textbooks.

"Life is really difficult and we people are backwards," he says.

"It's because no one hears us when we ask for help. We don't have any access to the media so politicians never listen to our problems.

"During elections they came here and showed us fake dreams about development. But they never returned."

The WFP will continue to fly in aid for the next six weeks, but then air operations will stop.

The Nepali government say they are aware of the crisis and that they are committed to long-term development projects such as building roads and modernising agriculture.

But for the moment, while politicians vie for power in Kathmandu, there is very little government presence in this region.

As they contemplate a future without outside help, the best the villagers can hope for is that they are not forgotten.

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